/ 11 October 2019

The silent struggle of special needs students in South Africa

We should reflect on our own responsibilities as a nation to create more equitable and understanding spaces for those who might need them the most
We should reflect on our own responsibilities as a nation to create more equitable and understanding spaces for those who might need them the most



In the face of other issues that have a clear sense of urgency when presented to the public, some problems are neglected for decades, becoming something sinister and systemic and altering countless lives in the process. The education, treatment, and very manner in which our nation upholds the rights of those who are differently-abled indicate a deeply troubling stigma that South Africans seem to bear. This is an issue more nuanced than it might seem at first, and one that lies well beyond solutions that are merely financial or symbolic.

My mother spent nearly a decade working in special education in New York City, where she had also earned her master’s degree in the field. As I spoke with her this past Teacher’s Day, she had the opportunity to reflect on — and compare — her experiences working with differently-abled or special-needs children in both nations. Needless to say, the resolutions she came to at the end of this period of reflection were a harsh indictment of the many and varied disparities in our education systems, and hold very little surprise for anyone who’s worked in the field.

“Less privileged learners are less likely to receive adequate care or diagnoses,” she explains. “Their differing abilities often make them victims of abuse in their schools, creating cycles of alienation that have less to do with their ability and more to do with society’s consensus on their value as a result of it.” Take a moment’s pause to consider that if this idea largely stems from her time working with less-privileged children of New York, one can only imagine how much more grave the issue is in our country. New York is a city segregated by wealth, from the public housing in Harlem to the multi-million dollar penthouses by the park, and its public schools are no different, processing children through a zoning system, ensuring that few are able to escape the economic limitations of their communities.

In South Africa, the problem is even more dire, where education is a key inhibitor of economic growth, a hamstrung leg on our path towards equality. Yet each and every citizen supposedly has the right to equal and decent education, as ratified in the 1966 Unesco/ILO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers, which Teacher’s Day commemorates.

If the school system as it stands (and has stood since its inception 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution) does not function adequately for children with special needs, then we must challenge it with alternatives. In the United Kingdom, there’s a farm that operates as a special education school, allowing its pupils the stillness and space they require. While this might not be an all-encompassing solution, its experimental approach and willingness to allocate resources to a methodology outside the realm of the time-honoured, troubled education system provides a glimmer of hope.

The issue’s solution relies on education of a different sort: teaching the parents of our nation that those who are differently-abled aren’t disabled, thus ending the stigmatisation and social segregation of those with special needs. In classrooms, poor behaviour is misconstrued and not noted as a signifier of social or psychological factors that might be its cause. At home, parents often outright refuse to acknowledge their child’s needs and differences. Somehow, we’ve reached a point at which these psychological phenomena are moralised, labelled “bad” for not being aligned with the status quo and as a result, human beings are suffering; they are effectively second-class citizens in South Africa. It’s an all-too-familiar phenomenon, but it should be a more jarring one. We certainly cannot place the onus on our teachers, who already bear the brunt of our nation’s growing pains.

We should reflect on our own responsibilities as a nation to create more equitable and understanding spaces for those who might need them the most but don’t know how to ask. How many voices have gone unheard, simply because we did not take the time to try to understand them? We have decided to punish these children for their differences. Not consciously, for we never consider ourselves so monstrous as to ignore the maladies of minors. Instead, it is through our willful ignorance as a nation in the treatment of the differently-abled that we exhibit our callousness. Whether in the language we use that casually degrades them or in the denial of their continued contributions to our society, we’ve likely each played a part.

Schools are one of society’s foundational pillars, and the teachers we celebrated on October 5 uphold it — a contribution for which each and every one of us should be deeply grateful — and children should not be treated punitively for differences they cannot help or control.